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Understanding COPD Life Expectancy: What You Need to Know

Friday 10 May 2024
9 minute(s) read

Table of Contents

I. COPD Life Expectancy

II. How is COPD Diagnosed?

i. Medical History

ii. COPD Testing

III. After Diagnosis: Stages of COPD

i. Airflow Limitation

ii. Symptoms and Exacerbations

IV. End Stage COPD

V. COPD Treatment

i. Inhalers for COPD

ii. Lifestyle Changes

VI. Conclusion

If you’ve been diagnosed with COPD, you may have questions about what the future holds and how long you can expect to live with this condition. The good news is that while COPD is a progressive disease, it is not necessarily terminal. With proper management and treatment, many people go on to live productive lives for years after diagnosis. [1]

In this article, we’ll discuss COPD life expectancy, COPD diagnosis, stages of COPD, and what you can do to live a longer and healthier life.

COPD Life Expectancy

The course of COPD is unique for each person. While COPD is typically a progressive disease that worsens over many years, the rate of decline can vary quite a bit from person to person. Many factors influence an individual's experience with COPD and their life expectancy. [1]

A key factor is the stage of COPD at diagnosis. Studies show that lung function decline can be slowed when COPD is caught early and treatment begins right away. The earlier the diagnosis and treatment, the better the outcome. Even though starting treatment helps at any stage, taking action in the early stages has the greatest impact on slowing progression. [1]

Other important factors are a person's:

  • Overall health
  • Age
  • Specific symptoms
  • COPD severity based on the GOLD staging system [1]

Those who are otherwise healthy, younger, have milder symptoms and are in the early stages of COPD tend to have a more favorable outlook. [1]

Making positive lifestyle changes after a COPD diagnosis can also help slow down the worsening of symptoms. For example, research shows that quitting smoking after a diagnosis helps delay the progression of the disease. [1]

How is COPD Diagnosed?

a woman undergoing a spirometry test

To diagnose COPD, your doctor will take several steps to understand your condition fully. They will ask you questions about your medical history and conduct several tests to rule out any other causes of your symptoms.

Medical History

Your doctor will ask questions about your health background and any symptoms you’ve been having. This will include questions about:

  • Your smoking history, exposure to second-hand smoke, or air pollution.
  • Whether you’ve had any childhood respiratory infections.
  • Times when your symptoms got worse, like changes in weather or seasons.
  • Other health issues include heart disease, osteoporosis, anxiety, and depression.
  • How your symptoms impact your daily life and activities. [2]

COPD Testing

After discussing your medical history, your doctor will conduct some tests to check how well your lungs work and ensure the symptoms aren’t caused by another issue.

  • Spirometry uses a spirometer to measure how much air you can blow out and how fast. This shows how well your lungs are functioning.
  • Alpha-1 testing is a blood test to check your alpha-1 antitrypsin level. It shows whether there’s a genetic reason behind your COPD diagnosis.
  • A chest X-ray cannot diagnose COPD but can rule out other conditions with similar symptoms. It may also show COPD-related lung changes.
  • A CT scan to determine the type of COPD, how severe it is, and if it’s progressing.
  • Oximetry or arterial blood gas (ABG) tests to measure the oxygen level in your blood. These show how well your lungs move oxygen and carbon dioxide. [2]

After Diagnosis: Stages of COPD

When you receive a COPD diagnosis, your doctor will assess the progression of the disease. The good news is that regardless of the stage you are in, there are effective treatments available to help you manage your symptoms and live a fulfilling life with COPD. [1]

COPD is categorized according to the Global Initiative for Chronic Obstructive Lung Disease (GOLD) criteria. This classification system considers two key factors:

  • Airflow limitation
  • Symptoms and exacerbations [3]

By using the GOLD staging system, your doctor can determine the severity and type of COPD symptoms you are experiencing. This information is crucial in determining the most appropriate treatment options for your specific condition. [3]

Airflow Limitation

When you have COPD, it's important to understand what degree of airflow limitation you’re experiencing. This gives you and your doctor key information about how severe your COPD is. [3]

Airflow limitation is measured using a simple breathing test called spirometry. This test determines your forced expiratory volume in one second (FEV1). FEV1 is the amount of air you can forcefully exhale in the first second after taking a deep breath. [3]

Your FEV1 is then compared to normal values adjusted for your age, sex, height, and ancestry. This comparison determines your COPD severity, categorized into GOLD stages 1 through 4. The higher the GOLD stage, the more advanced the COPD. [3]

We’ve included a chart below that outlines COPD classification by GOLD stage.

GOLD Stages+

GOLD Stage

COPD Classification




FEV1 80%



FEV1 ≥ 50% but < 80%



FEV1 ≥ 30% but < 50%


Very Severe

FEV1 < 30%

+ [3]

Symptoms and Exacerbations

In addition to assessing your lung function, your doctor will also want to understand your symptoms and history of flare-ups to get a full picture of your COPD. They will use two main tools to evaluate your symptoms:

  • The Modified British Medical Research Council Questionnaire (mMRC) asks you to rate your breathlessness during various activities on a scale from 0 to 4. Grade 0 means you only get short of breath during strenuous exercise, while grade 4 means you get winded doing day-to-day tasks or even just walking around the house.
  • The COPD Assessment Test (CAT) is a survey that asks about your cough, mucus, chest tightness, ability to do activities, confidence leaving home, sleep quality, and energy levels. Your answers give you a score from 0 to 40, which indicates how much COPD is impacting your daily life. Higher scores mean greater impact. [3]

Your doctor will also ask about your history of COPD exacerbations, which are sudden flare-ups where your symptoms get much worse. Having more frequent exacerbations is a sign that your COPD may be getting more severe. [3]

Using your lung function, CAT score, mMRC grade, and exacerbation history, your doctor will assign you a COPD stage from A to D. This helps guide treatment plans tailored to your specific severity of COPD. [3]

We’ve outlined these stages in the chart below:

ABCD Assessment+



Number of Exacerbations


CAT < 10 (low symptom burden)


mMRC 0 to 1

0 to 1 moderate or severe exacerbations (not leading to hospital admission)


CAT ≥ 10 (higher symptom burden)


mMRC ≥ 2

0 to 1 moderate or severe exacerbations (not leading to hospital admission)


CAT < 10 (low symptom burden)


mMRC 0 to 1

2 or more moderate/severe exacerbations or more than 1 exacerbation leading to hospital admission


CAT ≥ 10 (higher symptom burden)


mMRC ≥ 2

2 or more moderate/severe exacerbations or more than 1 exacerbation leading to hospital admission

+ [3]

End Stage COPD

When COPD reaches its most advanced stages, it's referred to as end-stage COPD. This doesn't necessarily mean you're at the end of life, but it does signal that you're entering the final phase of COPD progression. Even though end-stage COPD can't be reversed, there are still many ways to manage symptoms and live comfortably for months or years. [4]

The key symptoms of end-stage COPD include:

  • Severely reduced lung function (FEV1 less than 30% of normal)
  • Chronic respiratory failure, meaning the lungs can't adequately oxygenate blood or remove carbon dioxide
  • Severe shortness of breath, even at rest
  • Increased anxiety and depression as daily functioning becomes more difficult
  • Delirium or confusion as oxygen levels drop [5]

As difficult as this stage is, your doctor can help relieve discomfort and create a care plan tailored to your needs. Don't hesitate to ask about:

  • Medications to ease breathing and emotional distress
  • Adjustments to your oxygen therapy for maximal comfort
  • Home health services or hospice care to assist you and provide extra support [5]

It's also wise to consider your wishes for end-of-life care and document them clearly. This ensures you get the level of medical intervention you want. Your doctor and loved ones can honor your choices when you can no longer express them yourself.

COPD Treatment

a collection of inhalers for COPD

While COPD has no cure, the good news is that with the proper treatment plan and lifestyle adjustments, you can manage your symptoms and slow disease progression. The key is working closely with your doctor, nurses, respiratory therapists, and other members of your healthcare team to find the right approach tailored to your situation.

Inhalers for COPD

Managing your COPD with medication is an important part of your treatment plan. The right medications can help open your airways, reduce inflammation, and prevent exacerbations.

Some common inhalers for COPD are:

  • Beta-2 agonists: These medications relax and open your airways so you can breathe more easily. Examples include Ventolin and Respimat.
  • Anticholinergics: These prevent your airways from tightening and help clear out mucus. Examples include Atrovent and Incruse.
  • Inhaled corticosteroids: These reduce swelling and mucus production in your airways. They are not used alone for COPD but rather combined with other medication types.
  • Combination inhalers: These inhalers contain two or more medications to enhance effectiveness and simplify your routine. Advair and Symbicort are combination inhalers that work over time to improve your lung function and reduce COPD flare-ups. [6]

Lifestyle Changes

Incorporating some simple lifestyle changes can make a significant difference in managing COPD. Here are some tips that can help you improve your lung function and breathing:

  • Stop smoking: If you smoke, quitting is the most crucial step you can take to improve your COPD symptoms. It may not be easy, but quitting smoking can significantly enhance your lung function over time.
  • Get the flu vaccine: An annual flu vaccine is crucial for avoiding lung infections that could worsen COPD damage. The flu also tends to impact COPD patients harder.
  • Examine your work environment: If you work in an environment that exposes you to dust, fumes, or other lung irritants, it's essential to take protective measures. Wearing a mask or using other protective devices can help reduce the damage to your lungs.
  • Maintain a healthy weight: Being overweight can worsen shortness of breath, so it's vital to keep your weight under control. Exercise can also help improve lung function and overall health. [7]


It's important to understand that COPD is a progressive disease, but it is not a terminal illness. With the right approach, you can extend your life expectancy and improve your quality of life. By adhering to treatment plans and making healthy lifestyle changes, you can effectively manage your symptoms and slow down the progression of the disease.

If you suspect that you may have COPD, it is crucial to seek early diagnosis. By starting treatment early, you can better manage your symptoms and minimize the impact of the disease on your overall health.

The content in this article is intended for informational purposes only. This website does not provide medical advice. In all circumstances, you should always seek the advice of your physician and/or other qualified health professionals(s) for drug, medical condition, or treatment advice. The content provided on this website is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.